GI BRIDES: Gold Diggers or Overcomers?
The daughter of a War Bride speaking of her mother.
She was one of 11 (children) so to move to an unknown country
to live with complete strangers was a huge step.
She was only 17 when she came over to the US. A very frightening thing for a
girl that age, but that is what love does to you.
Not everybody was happy when Doreen fell in love with her GI Joe. The couple
in question might have been walking on cloud nine, but others could see only
storm clouds on the horizon. The United States Military was not keen on the
doughboys becoming involved with and distracted by the local ladies. Uncle Sam
was concerned that naive American soldiers, sailors and airmen might be taken in
by scheming British Gold-diggers seeking to relieve them of their plentiful
dollars. (American servicemen earned a great deal more than their British
equivalents.) So, for a time it was official policy to oppose such liaisons.
There was opposition in the home front, too. From folk who thought that nice
girls didn’t go with Yanks. And there was more than one colourful character
that captured the heart of a young Yank far from home! Opposition from parents
who were resistant to the idea of their often very young daughters getting
hitched to Americans, who were here today and might be gone tomorrow. A young
woman often had to work hard to bring her strict dad around to her way of
thinking. Maybe it was Father-meeting-Yank that settled the issue as mutual
respect was earned. However, it is clear that sometimes the fears of mothers and
fathers regarding their daughters were realised when things did not work out as
the couple had hoped. Of course, that happens when a gal marries the boy in the
next street, but if things go wrong when she is over 3,000 [miles] from mum and home.
In 1945 after the war in Europe was over the difficulties for the War Brides
continued. Many husbands were shipped straight from continental Europe to the
States, although some were reunited in the United Kingdom with their wives and
were able to cross the Atlantic together. However, the vast majority of the
Brides would have to make the journey to their new husbands, new homes and new
country, in the company of other Brides. Uncle Sam did decide in late 1945 to
make provision for this to happen, so that the next year saw a floating Magic
Carpet taking thousands of young wives and their babies and toddlers across the
Pond. The Carpet might be a Queen, such as the Mary, or it might be a Liberty
ship or a former US Army Transport. Appropriately, perhaps, most brides went to
the States on the same sort of transport as had brought their husbands-to-be
over in the first place. A few had the questionable privilege of flying the
Atlantic, but that sounds like rank talking!
Before leaving the country GI Brides faced the ordeal of saying Goodbye to
their folks at the train station or the dockside in the knowledge that they
might never see them again. Sadly, for some that was to be the case. A transit
camp at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain was established with its indignities,
where some of their husbands might well have been stationed before going to
France. Here the Brides were to undergo the inspections, jabs and, of course,
the forms to fill in. The handing over of the British identity pass began the
process of Americanisation. By way of compensation there was the Post Exchange
(PX) with its cornucopia of goods to purchase items generally unavailable in
the UK, and an abundance of food at meal times.
So it was that the young War Bride – typically 17, 18 years of age was faced
with many obstacles to cross before she was back with her husband. At every
stage there were a few, sadly, who gave up the struggle.
The crossing of the Atlantic was a variable experience. Not just the vessel
varied, from liner to transport, but the weather. Sometimes calm, sometimes
stormy. Some women coped better than others; but for many, who probably never
previously sailed on anything bigger than a rowing boat on the municipal lake,
there were the miseries of sea-sickness. Apart from the physical discomforts,
for some there were disturbing matters of the heart. Questions: Had she made the
right decision? Would her husband be there when she arrived? Would he send for
her to travel on to her final destination, which could be the other side of the
country? How would they get on having been apart for many months, especially as
they may have hardly known each other before going down the aisle? It was truly
a journey into the unknown. Would his family accept her into its bosom? What
about his mother and her reaction to her new unknown daughter-in-law? How would
she cope with being so far from her family? Dare she wonder whether she would
ever get to see home again?
For some it did not work out. Her man was not there. Word was sent that she was
not wanted. Who can imagine the feelings of despair at such rejection? How was
she to get back to the UK? Thankfully Uncle Sam seems to have thought of that as
the US government paid for returns. But how would she face the folk who had
sagely said, It will never work? Perhaps it was for the best to find out at
that stage that a mistake had been made. Some women realised soon enough that
things were not going to work out, as one writes, I walked into HELL and
they had children to think of by the time they were able to extricate themselves
from an unhappy marriage. However, it is suggested that fewer GI bride
marriages failed than others of that era. Only a comprehensive survey could
prove that conclusively, but it seems likely.
But for most it was to be a joyful experience of reunion (and relief after such
a long journey from door to door.) Either at the dockside or at the railroad
station the tears would flow and the hugs would bind couples once again. And if
GI Joe's family gave its seal of approval to the new arrival, then so much the
better. But this was only the start. The process of settling in and settling
down now began in earnest.
Over the initial hurdles, the War Bride would settle down to a life of
domesticity as, hopefully, her husband, as was then the norm, went to work to
support her and the children, those born overseas and those made in the USA.
Was this a somewhat isolated life for young girls in a foreign country? For
whatever similarities there were, (and are) between the United Kingdom and the
United States, there were profound differences, in language, culture, living
styles and living standards. And her husband might be away all day leaving her
to cope alone, with a little help from her in-laws. The transition for some
Brides was not just from country to country but from country-life to city life
or vice versa. Or from small-family living to big-family living. These, of
course, are the challenges that face most couples getting married but they were
extra ones for these “settlers.
One of the big drawbacks for these newly married couples, due to a housing
shortage after the war, was not having a place of their own. Living with the
in-laws was virtually inevitable. If the mother-in-law took against the
daughter-in-law then there was certainly trouble ahead! And especially if the
former GI was used to jumping to attention when his mother spoke! Doreen and
Beryl were a long way from their friends and family, their natural supporters
in times of crisis. Some Brides were blessed to have English friends in the
vicinity and could count on them. But most of them seem to have been
geographically isolated as they were scattered to the far corners of continental
USA. No wonder that British women in America would seek out their
country-sisters and that eventually the various War Bride Clubs came into being.
Was it easier for those who settled on or near the eastern seaboard of the
States, as compared with those who went to live in the landlocked hills?
A number of enterprising builders such as Mr William Levitt came to the rescue
of the young couples. Rows of cheerful little homes sprouted on large tracts of
land all over the States. At last, easily affordable homes were available.
Escape from mother-in-law was now possible, if desirable! British Brides now
discovered that so many of the good things of life for their new homes could be
purchased on the never, never, something often frowned on back home in
Homesickness was a common complaint. However happy they might be in their new
homes and with their new families, it did not prevent them all missing Mum and
Dad and the folks back home, and their British roots. Letters and newspapers
from home helped, sent out by loving parents concerned for their daughters.
Sometimes the newspapers contained stories about the Brides themselves.
It was to be a few years before that important first home visit could be made.
Not only did women want to see their folks again, but also grandchildren needed
to meet their maternal grandparents. Life was busy and money was short. For some
it would be the 50's before that flight or cruise home could be afforded.
Returning to the UK could present fresh challenges to the returnee. It was hard
for one bride to leave behind in England her sick and dying father so the stay
dragged and became a very stressful experience. Happily her marriage survived.
Returning to the UK helped some realise that the USA really was their home. Was
this, in part, because Great Britain was taking some time to recover from WW2?
Rationing did not end until 1954. On the other hand, many folk in the US were
enjoying a post war boom. Gadgets of all sorts were gathering in their homes and
kitchens. Britain was lagging behind and it must have been difficult for
visitors to think of life without the appliances common place back home. It was
probably not until the 70's that a visitor over here would have found all
things she was used to over there.
There was some post-war traffic between the Old World and the New World of a
more permanent nature. Some widowed or divorced brides returned to the land of
their birth. In the other direction went some of the parents of the brides who
for various reasons followed their daughters and settled in the US. Of course,
with the advent of easier and cheaper travel the homesick have been able to
visit more often. And the children and the grandchildren of the WW2 Brides have
crossed the Pond maintaining the links first established in churches all over UK
during and after the war.
The challenge remains of being betwixt and between. Women who are split in
their loyalties and their emotions, and feel pulled in two directions. One put
it in a positive way; I have two countries I can call home. Another, I feel
The vast majority of the Brides were certainly brave to do what they did. And do
it for love they surely did. A few were quickly disappointed. Some found the
struggle too much and gave up after years of trying to make things work. Most
persevered and lasted the course and many are still happily married to their GI
Joe. They are the Overcomers.
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